Health officials are hoping that new, long-acting drugs to help prevent HIV infection will be a turning point for the fight against a global health threat that’s been eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the new drug in a weekly newsletter, saying the long-term acting and injectable HIV drug has “the potential to significantly strengthen our response to the epidemic.”
The region is especially hard-hit. South Africa has the biggest epidemic in the world with 7.7 million people living with HIV, according to UNAIDS.
In separate studies of men and women earlier this year, including one by the HIV Prevention Trials Network and the Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (RHI) at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the drug — Cabotegravir — had successful trials. The shot given every two months has been proven to be 90% more effective than the daily pill known as PrEP.
Ramaphosa’s message noted, however, that South Africa’s battle against HIV had suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant strain on health services, a situation repeated in many countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
In her World AIDS Day message, UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima lamented the fact that more than 12 million people are still waiting to get on HIV treatment, while 1.7 million people were infected with HIV in 2019 because of lack of access.
She called on companies to “openly share their technology and know-how and to waive their intellectual property rights” so that the world can produce vaccines, including for COVID-19, at the scale required. There is no vaccine for HIV.
She also stressed that the global AIDS response was off track even before COVID-19 and the world needed to reset its targets if it is to meet the goal of ending HIV/AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.
The response against COVID-19 has shown what can be achieved by working together, UNAIDS said.
Fears that the world is losing focus on the AIDS epidemic were reflected by figures in South Africa that showed 225,000 HIV/AIDS patients in the country’s largest province of Gauteng had discontinued their vital anti-retroviral treatment this year, partly but not only because of difficulties accessing care during the virus pandemic.
Yet, amid the stark figures, health officials and women, hold onto hope that cabotegravir could mean less visits to health centers as many look to reduce exposure to COVID-19.